The 41st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which opens this week, looks back to the past to gain a better historical perspective on the present and quite possibly the future.
This theme emerges in several of the program’s more than 50 feature films, a list dominated by narrative films inspired by real people and real life situations.
The festival, which returns this year to live screenings (July 24-25 at the Castro in San Francisco) while offering a busy virtual program (July 22-August 1) essentially offers two opening nights with two good options. The Castro Theater on July 24 is screening the Holocaust drama “Persian Lessons”. The Sundance documentary, “Misha and the Wolves,” is available for home viewing starting July 22. The festival ends with the truth-based thriller “Plan A,” a crackling dramatization of a shocking post-WWII plot to poison a German water supply system. It will be available to stream throughout the festival, but only to Bay Area viewers.
Celebrity Polish director Agnieszka Holland will be honored with freedom of expression, and her film “Charlatan”, an Oscar-shortlisted biopic about Czech healer Jan Mikolášek, is on the virtual program of the event.
Here are five films to watch.
“Persian lessons”: This opening night selection boasts solid performances, evocative cinematography, and a gripping Holocaust-themed premise. Most of the action takes place in a German concentration camp, the new home of quick-witted Giles (ideally with Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Giles is a Belgian Jew whose life is spared after convincing suspected SS men that he is Persian (Iranian), an appearance that attracts the attention of an officer (Lars Eidinger) who oversees the kitchen staff and wants to learn the Persian. An end-to-end survivor, Giles creates his own version of the language. Director Vadim Perelman (“House of Sand and Fog”) fills every frame with tension and period detail, and comes up with an ending that will leave you in tears. The script, however, does make a few miscalculations, with the characters making personality U-turns that don’t make much sense. Still, it’s a well-done and intense drama. Details: Screening 8:15 p.m. on July 24 at the Castro Theater.
“Prognosis: Notes on life”: This heartbreaking but rewarding documentary celebrates the life of her subject – Bay Area documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff – and her decision to turn the camera on herself after learning she has breast cancer of stage 4. The camera captures all the mess: hope, fury, depression, loss. Chasnoff leaves us with a profound portrait of death on how families can make all the difference in the last moments of a person’s life. Details: Noon screening on July 25 at the Castro Theater, including Q&A with the filmmakers; also streaming through August 1.
“200 meters”: It’s every parent’s nightmare to get a call that your child has been admitted to the hospital. For Mustafa – the protagonist of Ameen Nayfeh’s intense narrative feature – the journey to get to his injured son becomes increasingly difficult as the 200 meters between them include an Israeli checkpoint. Mustafa desperately tries to embark with other passengers whose motives become clearer as the situation crumbles. As Mustafa, Ali Suliman has won praise and rightly so, it is an outstanding performance consisting of light gestures and stunning body and vocal control. While the script wanders too much at first, it keeps us riveted. Don’t miss the Oscar nominated short film “White Eye” preceding the film. Details: Screenings 11 am on July 24 at the Castro; also streaming through August 1.
“Wet dog”: What makes Damir Lukacevic’s adaptation of a talked about autobiography so successful is the way it acutely captures the voice of its lead character, 15-year-old Soheil (impressive newcomer Doguhan Kabadayi). When he moves with his parents to a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Berlin, his parents distance themselves from their Jewish identity. But the rebel Soheil is starting to be more sensitive to his Iranian Jewish heritage. Soheil makes a complicated character, a bully who wants to fit in but then gets bullied himself once he becomes more passionate about his religious and cultural identity. Lukacevic’s film tackles difficult and delicate terrains and it is both raw and alive. This is one of the best features of the program. Details: Broadcast until August 1.
“Neighbors”: My favorite film in the lineup remains the tender, humorous and sometimes devastating epic of the coming of age of director / screenwriter Mano Khalil. Located in 1980s Syria, near the border with Turkey, he sees village life through the eyes of the expressive and adorable Sero, a 6-year-old as curious as he is innocent. With an uncle he adores and parents he respects, Sero later discovers how a prospect us against them destroys relationships and the joys of life. “Neighbors” is a beautiful film that richly observes a community while addressing global issues. Prepare to have a good cry. Details: Broadcast until August 1.
Contact Randy Myers at [email protected]
SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
When or: Live screenings at the Castro Theater, San Francisco, July 24-25; virtual screenings July 22-August. 1
Tickets: Virtual festival pass $ 195 to $ 245, Castro live screening pass $ 55 to $ 90, individual tickets (live and virtual) $ 15